Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) might just be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. At Cambridge he was under Bertrand Russell‘s tutelage, essentially being taught that the job of philosophy is to put definitions on everything. Russell eventually believed Wittgenstein to be a genius.
In the only full length book published in his lifetime (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), Wittgenstein wanted to show a strictly logical relationship between ‘theoretical’ propositions and the real world. In effect, he believed that by describing the logic of this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems.
Yet, later in his life, he reversed his position.
Going back in time, Socrates believed that we know what something is because it has some inherent ‘form’, which we all learn. This then gets represented in the real world. So the general ‘form’ of a ‘pencil’ (which we all agree on) allows us to define a specific item as a ‘pencil’ – because it has that ‘form’. Importantly, when we describe that ‘pencil’ to other people, they will understand what we mean.
There were many variants of this approach over the centuries.
It led to the important disciplines of mathematics, logic, language theory, semiotics and so on. Essentially all of these ideas and methodologies are built on an increasingly thoughtful, often introspective approach to the definition of things and ideas.
Ludwig Wittgenstein , schoolteacher, c. 1922 Permission, courtesy of the Joan Ripley Private Collection; Michael Nedo and the Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge; and the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
However, Wittgenstein turned the philosophy of language on its head.
In ‘Philosophical Investigations‘ (1953), he asked us to consider how we consider ‘pain’, a most personal experience. He writes:
‘Suppose everyone has a box that only they can see into, and no one can see into anyone else’s box: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he [or she] knows what a beetle is only by looking at his [or her] beetle.
Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in their box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.
But suppose the idea ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so it would not be used as the name of a thing’. My emphasis. (pg 100)
So, if we say that we know what ‘pain’ means, (Wittgenstein later calls this ‘object and designation’) it is actually irrelevant to any objective, definitional meaning of ‘pain’.
It is exactly as if the beetle may or may not be in the box. Introspection cannot control our use of language.
At the beginning of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein discussed the idea of a ‘game’. We all know how to use the word in everyday conversation – but it is really hard to pin down one, underlying definition for all ‘games’.
Think football games, chess games, political games, mind games, playing games. So, a ‘game’ is difficult to define. And Wittgenstein goes on to say that ‘conversation’ is itself a kind of game.
Thus Wittgenstein shows that language is not about rigid, private/personal definitions, but is about how we practically and publically use words in real world discourse. This is called the Private Language Argument by philosophers.
To me, this has three implications for Photography and Critical Theory.
There cannot be one, right, ‘objective’ Critical Theory. Even the common definition of terms becomes elusive.
Writers will use more and more words to try to explain their (personal) points and critique others – and it will all become more and more confusing to (public) readers.
Instead, we must consider the real world context of an image and how it is publically discussed to be able to understand and describe it. In essence, we are not only allowed to pick and choose which critical method we want to employ, but we must. And we must do so from the viewpoint of conversation with others, not from some inner, critical self.
I just read The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political violence, by Susie Linfield (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and found it totally fascinating. Essentially, Linfield challenges the idea that photography of political violence exploits the subject and panders to the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies. Instead she argues passionately that looking at such images, and learning how to see people in them, is both ethically and politically necessary – a view with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Linfield notes that the book
‘.. is written, in large part, against the photography criticism of Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag was wrong about most things, on the contrary, many of her insights remain sharp and true. But is is Sontag, more than anyone else, was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructuralist heirs, and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice and the ideals of documentary photography. Unlike these critics I believe we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike these critics, I believe we need to look at, and into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”’. (pg XV)
Polemics: Chapter 1
‘… through criticism, [Baudelaire] sought to transform [his] pleasure into knowledge.’. (pg 3)
Modernist Baudelaire and Margaret Fuller suggested that the critic’s emotional connection to an artist or work of art … is the sine qua non … of criticism (pg 3) whilst post Modernist Sontag sees photography as grandiose, voyeuristic, predatory, addictive. (Sontag, On Photography, 1970) Roland Barthes noted that photograph’s punctum is that accident that ‘pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)‘. (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980). Barthes also describes photographs as ‘agents of death‘. (pg 6)
John Berger, unlike Sontag, respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs. But he was especially critical of photographs that document political violence. (pg 6) Sontag also wrote that ‘The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings‘ (pg 7). And Allan Sekula: ‘photography is … primitive, infantile, aggressive.‘ (pg 7)
Yet McCullin’s or Ut’s war images didn’t foster feelings of moral inadequacy or were ignored – on the contrary they mobilized political opposition to the Vietnam War (pg 7)
‘The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself.’ (pg 8)
For the post-moderns, photographs were not just an integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. John Tagg described photography as ultimately a function of the state (pg 9), whilst Martha Rosler wrote that photographs are the ultimate imperialism (pg 9) and Sekula assailed the photographer Paul Strand’s belief in human values, social ideas, decency and truth as ‘the enemy’ (pg 10)
‘In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business – the photograph is a prison, the act of looking a crime – which may Be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud.’ (pg 11)
Yet photography was a great democratic medium from the beginning, which Flaubert thought will ‘dethrone painting’ (from Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet). (pg 14)
Sontag, Berger, Barthes and the postmodernist’s were heavily influenced by the melancholy school of the Frankfurt writers, especially Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Bertold Brecht. This school didn’t write just about photography, and they are treated by contemporary critics with fitting intellectual respect, but also with a kind of fundamentalist reverence, which (Linfield writes) is inappropriate. (pg 17) For Benjamin though, photography was a part of painful but necessary task of modernity. The photographer Eugėne Atget, who ‘set about removing the makeup from reality’, inspired in Benjamin some of his most appreciative and beautiful writing (pg 17)
Benjamin distrusted photography’s ability to beautify (pg 18)
Kracauer believed that in a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.’ (pg 19)
Brecht really did loathe photographs ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world.’ (pg 20)
Benjamin quotes Brecht ‘less than ever does the mere reflection of reality [a photograph] [tell us] anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp world’s tells us next to nothing about these institutions’ (pg 20)
And on one level Brecht was right – photographs don’t explain the way the world works
‘… when you’ve seen one bombed out building, you’ve seen them all’ … yet ‘only a vulgar reductionist – or an absolute pacifist – would say that these five cities [wars] represent the same circumstances, histories, causes’ (pg 21). ‘… the problem with photographs is not only what they fail to do. … a greater problem for Brecht [and co] is what they succeed in doing. Photographs excel, more than any other form of art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection with the world’ (pg 22)
Brecht lived through the crisis of modernity that was the Weimar Republic, and which led to the Nazis. His genius was to understand the role of unexamined emotion in this fatal process (pg 23) And photographs were a major part of that hysterically political scene. However Brecht was wrong to say that photography was in the hands of the bourgeoisie – the practice of documentary photography [in the 30s] was dominated by liberals and leftists (pg 24)
Open ended photographs don’t tell us what to feel, but encourage us to dig … a photograph’s ambiguities are a starting point for discovery (pg 29)
Unlike Brecht, we don’t need to view photographs as carriers of a fatal emotional germ; unlike the postmodern, we don’t need to avoid emotion the way the Victorians avoided sex. Nor do we need to regard photographs simply as henchman of capitalism or tools of oppression [Sekula] … critics have crippled our capacity to grasp what John Berger called “The there was of the world”. And it is just that – the texture, the fullness of the wound outside ourselves – into which we need to delve’ (pg 30)
Polemics: Chapter 2
The establishment of human rights is a life and death project to build a “species solidarity” that is deeper and stronger than culture, nation, religion, race, class, gender or politics.’ (pg 35)
Photographs can show us what the abscence of those rights looks like (pg 37) And ‘The best photographic portraits, like the best painted portraits, present us not with biographical information but with soul.’ (pg 40)
Linfield notes a 1978 essay on documentary photography by Allan Sekula, which discusses ‘The pornography of the direct representation of misery’ (pg 40) And on the other hand, considers Sebastiao Salgado, who work some critics dismiss because of the ‘prettiness’ of his images. (pg 43)
Whilst photography has globalized awareness and our consciences, beyond the control of nation states, it has still not stopped the suffering. Journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote in the 1939s of photography being no stronger than a glow worm – a widely held view today amongst humanitarian organisations and documentary photographers. (pg 47) However International NGOs are hardly possible without photography.
Linfield discusses the image of Nsala, from the Belgium Congo, who is looking at hand and foot of his five year old daughter, who had been killed and eaten in attack on village for failing to meet its rubber quota. Nsala’s wife had also been killed and eaten in the attack. (pg 49). She notes that we now look at such images in the full knowledge that what they depict really happened, and in some small way that makes them less terrible as photographs.
Don McCullin’s pictures in Biafra (1967-70) helped jumpstart global consciousness of the issues, and led to the formation of Doctors Without Borders (1972). But images didn’t address the underlying cause of the famine, which occurred because Biafran Leader Ojukwu put his political aims above the fate of his own people. (pg 50)
Nazis, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Khmer Rouge and others used photography to document/legitimize their actions – but whilst they are taken by the perpetrators, the images speak for the victims (pg 52)
Linfield criticizes David Chandler’s afterword in the 1996 book of photographs from Tuol Sleng, The Killing Fields, edited by Chris Riley & Douglas Niven when he notes ‘… we are inside S21’.
‘We are not inside their prison, they were. Our hells are almost certainly not theirs. Nor should the difference between looking at a photograph and torturing a child be so easily elided. … We cannot be the prisoners of S21 and more than we can save them. … That is not an argument for not looking, not seeing, or not knowing, nor for throwing up one’s hands or shielding one’s eyes. Looking at these doomed people is not a form of exploitation; forgetting them is not a firm of respect. … The demands of justice will never be met, and the suffering of the victims never redeemed’. (pg 59)
The MoMa exhibition around this book, held in 1997, did get some criticism.
‘This exhibition has provoked a small storm of protest, and it is certainly fair to ask what these sensational photographs are doing in an art museum. Does this imply that the killers who took them are artists? Can genocide be art? And does the book from Twin Palms, so glossily produced, estheticize and exploit the dead?’.
Still, as Linfield later notes ‘Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing’ (pg 60).
Personally I think a more apt criticism can be made of the book’s editors, Riley and Niven. They painstakingly restored the Tuol Sleng images, and these serve even today as serious, legally important reference materials. But in creating a for-profit ‘art’ book and exhibition, did things go too far? The book is still for sale today, at $150.
As I develop the Cambodia Project for my Falmouth MA in Photography, the need to research is clear. Archiving the Unspeakable, by Michelle Caswell, is a fascinating read. It deals with the role of photographic archives in the activities of the Khmer Rouge at the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, now the Genocide Museum, in Phnom Penh. Every visitor to the prison is immediately struck by the walls of mug shots, and the painstaking record keeping of torture.
Michelle Caswell is an assistant professor of archival studies in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
In the early pages, Caswell notes the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in his book ‘Silencing the Past‘. Trouillot states that a record (a picture) moves through four silences – it is captured, it is organised and archived, it takes on a narrative, and it becomes history.
She then goes on to mention Eric Ketelaar, who said that ‘.. records are dynamic objects, continually shifting with each new use and contextualisation.‘ (pg 50)
Not a bad way to think about pictures.
However, more seriously, John Tagg noted that ‘ Like the state, the camera is never neutral ‘ (pg 50). And Michelle Caswell wrote ‘The camera, as a truth apparatus of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge state, was invested with the power to produce the truth it recorded’ (pg 51)
Thus, in taking the mug shots, the chief of 6 photographers at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En (born 1961), essentially also took away the rights and the humanity of the accused – leading to interrogation and execution. Nhem En later stepped forward as a witness in the Khmer rouge trails. From a 2007 NYT interview ‘His career in the Khmer Rouge began in 1970 at age 9 when he was recruited as a village boy to be a drummer in a touring revolutionary band. When he was 16, he said, he was sent to China for a seven-month course in photography”
Caswell again: ‘The taking of mug shots at Tuol Sleng and the photograph’s ability to transform suspects into criminal enemies of the state were part and parcel of this larger Khmer Rouge obsession with classifying the population in an effort to create a purely Cambodian agrarian society’ (pg 52).
And ‘There are no archives without politics; the process of transforming the Tuol Sleng mug shots into archives is inherently and inescapably political’ (pg 95)
Stephanie Benzaquen ‘While one focuses on the 17,000 victims of Tuol Sleng one forgets about the other two million dead who left no trace’ (pg 134) … the vast majority of the dead remain silent … As Trouillot writes ‘the production of traces is always the production of silences’ (pg 135)
On a 2011/12 visit to Tuol Sleng, Caswell saw Bou Meng and Chum Mey, Tuol Sleng survivors, selling books and posing for photographs. She at first struggled with this, but gradually realised what was happening.
Whilst she acknowledged that ‘The disproportionate rate with which certain Tuol Sleng mug shots – Chan Kim Srun’s is a prime example – gets reproduced on book covers, in publications, and on DVDs, misrepresents Khmer Rouge victims as women and children and as elites, silencing the other victims of Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge’ (pg 134), she also noted that ‘Like almost everything else in Cambodia, the suffering of the Tuol Sleng survivors has a price’ (pg 136). And ‘Although the [UN- Cambodian Government ECCC] Tribunal’s predominant narrative is that without justice for the past, Cambodia can’t move forward, it is the survivors who quite literally can’t move beyond Tuol Sleng without material reparations’ (pg 144)
‘There is [clearly] an enormous potential for re-traumatisation when these survivors return on a daily basis to the site of their own horrific torture and captivity – as well as the murder of their loved ones – to earn a living’ (pg 144). But, as DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said ‘When BM and CM are together now, they are no longer survivors. They become authors, booksellers and competitors. They become free from traumatised. Like all of us [Cambodians] they compete for success. They are free people now’ (pg 145)
So these survivors ‘… become free agents whose ongoing survival is secured despite the failure of the state and the international community to provide financial reparations to the victims’ (pg 145). Thus ‘Instead of bristling at the commercialisation of the Tuol Sleng experience, we should shift … towards the larger global and domestic climate in which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on on a tribunal …’ (pg 145) ‘The Tribunal offers a narrow legal justice, but the survivors demand a pervasive restorative justice‘ (pg 147)
Rachel Hughes ethnographically studied on tourists at Tuol Sleng, and found that they are not solely ‘dark tourists’ (as per J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley) but instead visit out of a sense of duty (pg 146). As Caswell comments, they bear witness to the genocide, as they pose for photographs with the survivors.
Caswell studied the blogs of tourists who had visited Tuol Sleng, and mentioned two in particular.
She concludes that ‘Underlying the photographs with the survivors are two competing conceptions of human rights: that which is defined in opposition to genocide, and that which is defined in opposition to economic injustice’ (pg 152) Yet ‘… the tourists in the pictures also perform injustice by recording how Bou Meng and Chum Mey must sell their publications to tourists to guarantee their financial well-being … The tourists in these photographs become witnesses to the commodification of the survivor’s memory’ (pg 152)
‘In the Tuol Sleng courtyard, the survivors themselves carefully construct the object of the tourist gaze, repeatedly staging near identical scenarios’ (pg 153). So, the survivors are transformed from symbols of past injustice into symbols of contemporary injustice.
‘To see the Tuol Sleng survivors as victimised by tourist cameras oversimplifies the complexities of how these records are constructed and circulated, and denies the survivors agency in creating them’ (pg 155) Thus ‘... the records of Tuol Sleng are never finalised, their meaning never resolved; they are always in the process of becoming’ (pg 156)
The mug shot images were originally the instrument of depersonalisation of the victim, and effectively their death warrant within the closed-loop of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge bureaucracy. They became instruments of justification for the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, and the beginnings of an historical archive for scholars. Archivists and photographers attempted to repurpose them as Art, with insufficient context.
DC-Cam uses them effectively and politically to prosecute justice against the leaders of the KR, at the ECCC Tribunal. The few remaining survivors of Tuol Sleng use them to create some financial security, despite their double traumas as torture victims and then victims of institutional failure to provide reparation. And tourists, in photographing these survivors and survivors the records themselves, bear witness to the genocide.
Yet, In all cases, the mug shots leave silent the millions of other victims of the Khmer Rouge.
I will leave the last words to Caswell: ‘As scholars, archivists and humans, it is our responsibility to respectfully activate these records in the present, acknowledge the silences encoded within them, and bring them forth from the past into the future, ensuring they will not be erased’ (pg 165)
“An important book that will reward re-reading for years to come. Using an archival frame of reference, Caswell describes the reasons for the creation and subsequent uses of the familiar yet tragic mug shots of Tuol Sleng prison victims, demonstrating the many silences these records encode and illustrating how they can be employed to transform narratives of victimhood into narratives of agency and witness.” Andrew Flinn, University College London
“Caswell pays homage to the subjects of the heart-breaking mug shots taken at a Khmer Rouge prison and examines the impact that the photographs have had over the years on different viewers. Her humane, sophisticated, and unblinking book sharpens and enhances our understanding of the so-called Pol Pot era.” David Chandler, Monash University
Michelle Caswell, Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia. Univ Wisconsin, 2014.
Michel-Ralph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, Beacon Press 1995
John Tagg, The Burden of Representation Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts, 1988
I have just started my MA Photography (Falmouth University, online). In this first week, I was was quite taken with the ‘required reading’ chapter on Territorial Photography by Joel Snyder, in the book Landscape and Power by WJT Mitchell (University of Chicago Press, 1994). Landscape is not really the centre of my photography, though I am always attracted to the genre, which probably goes back to my painting days, and studying art in the 1960s.
The header above, JMW Turner‘s(1775-1851) Fighting Temeraire (1839), was always a painting that inspired me, as did all of Turner’s work. Most of his later paintings can be considered “sublime”, and in many ways I consider his art a precursor of expressionism.
One of his works, Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) goes far in its abstraction, whilst seemingly true to the shape of the landscape.
Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), National Gallery/Wikimedia
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757 ) said
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree … No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime”. (Part II, Section I),
By contrast, John Constable‘s (1776-1837)equally famous Haywain is, in my opinion, a superb exemplar of Beautiful-Picturesque painting. Constable made several open air sketches of the scene, and then created the painting in his London studio. To me, his work appears to be an Impressionist antecedent.
The Haywain (1821), Wikimedia
Turner and Constable were of course ‘artistic rivals’, battling for honours at the Royal Academy.
An early theorist, Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) placed the picturesque between the serenely beautiful and the awe-inspiring sublime (from An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Robson, 1796).
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, 1790) took Burke’s concept further. He noted that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight. Beautiful objects need no underlying concept.
Kant wrote that “the beautiful and the sublime agree on the point of pleasing on their own account. Further they agree in not presupposing either a judgement of sense or one logically determinant, but one of reflection”. However, he went on to say that the beautiful is “a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding.” By contrast, the sublime is found even in an object without form. The sublime is a “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason“.
First Part, Section I, Book II Analytic of the Sublime, #23.
Mitchell, in Landscape and Power noted that “Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another. Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.” (pg 5)
Liz Wells, in Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011) also commented that “The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretative processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder”. (pg 45)
Culture and context thus create considerable impact on the way the photographer views the scene and creates the image.
Snyder’s chapter in Mitchell’s book discusses Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). Watkins was a very early example of a photographer working to explore the capabilities of the still new plate technology, to document the landscape of the American West in essentially a picturesque vein.
Cathedral Rock, Yosemite (1861), Wikimedia
Snyder makes reference to Watkins’ work as ‘picturesque-sublime’. It strikes me that whilst the American landscape Watkins portrayed is beautiful, the term ‘sublime’ does not strictly apply – as Watkins was capturing ‘what is’ rather than ‘what could be’.
Recall that Turner changed the angle of the sunset in the Temeraire to portray the scene as he imagined it, not exactly as it was. Turner interpreted his scenes, often never even seeing them first hand. Constable painted essentially what was in front of him, albeit with his own interpretation of light, colour and composition. Both men delivered beautiful paintings, yet Turner seems to me to be appealing more to the concept and ideas behind the scene, even when depicting an actually existing landscape (a la Kant).
In the essay, Snyder also references Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882), O’Sullivan worked as a teenager for Matthew Brady (1822-1896) in recording the American Civil War. O’Sullivan then went out on his own to provide his interpretation of the American landscape, which, in Snyder’s words “.. were made for the first modern surveys of the American interior, the first surveys managed and directed by civilians working for the government” (pg 198).
O’Sullivan remains in the ‘picturesque’ camp, although Snyder also places him as ‘picturesque-sublime’. O’Sullivan actually ‘arranged’ the buggy in the image below by dragging it into position to his liking, to create a scene which is both documentary and of compositional interest. By placing humans in the scene, O’Sullivan creates images of wildness and desolation.
Sand Dunes, Carson Desert, Nevada (1867), Google Arts & Culture
I view O’Sullivan rather like Roger Fenton (1819-1869), who reportedly arranging the cannonballs in the Valley of Death (1855), to document the impact of war. After all, it was rather hard with the technology of that time to capture the actual battle. No embedded reporters with high speed cameras. Brady dealt with this by portraying the aftermath, the dead. Fenton showed the desolation.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855), Library of Congress
A photographer that is not as well acknowledged, though one of my favourites, is Adam Clark Vroman (1856-1916). In 1895, Vroman started work on a series of California missions, and for the next ten years he photographed the American Southwest. His work was documentary in intent, capturing the landscape but as lived in by native America Indian Tribes. Unlike much other photography of that time which either glamourised or (unfortunately) trivialised the people, Vroman set out to record their lifestyle and habitat with precision and, to his best ability, objectivity.
Arguably ‘picturesque’, in some ways he is a forefather of the New Topographic Movement, reflecting human impact on the landscape, depicted with a lack of emotion.
Walpi (Moki Town) 1895, Smithsonian American Art Museum
I should note that Vroman’s dignified yet honest portrayal of the people of the Tribes and their habitat very much influences my own documentary work. Looking forward to exploring that in the MA program.
Indian Mother with Her Child (1900), Wikimedia
As noted, landscape is not a principal focus of my photographic practice, though landscape can teach so much about photography. I look forward to learning a great deal more.
Snyder, J. (1994) Territorial Photography, in W.J.T Mitchell Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press.
Wells, L. (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. I.B. Tauris.
The more you consider this, the more it’s clear that road trips have been integral to photography almost from the beginning.
An excellent source is ‘The Open Road‘, by David Company (Aperture, 2014). This is focused on the American Road Trip, from Robert Frank in the 1950s to Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs in 2008.
Frank’s road trip led to the seminal work, ‘The Americans’ (1958), published just after Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road‘ (1957). Frank’s book had an introduction from Kerouac. Photography and literature are intertwined.
One of my favourite photographers, Daido Moriyama, was also influenced by Kerouac, and made Japanese road trips in the 1960s and 70s. This became part of his book ‘Farewell to Photography‘, another classic work (1972). Moriyama set out to destroy photography, presenting his publisher with a set of damaged negatives, which could be printed in any way the publisher saw fit.
“In On The Road each phrase is like one shot. The narrative is always moving, always looking at different things at the same time”.
And, for the ‘Instagram generation’, road trips have never been more current – truly a global phenomenon.
The Open Road is the first book to explore the photographic road trip as a genre. It opens with a comprehensive introduction, which traces the rise of road culture in America and considers photographers on the move across the country and across the century, from the early 1900s to present day. Each chapter explores one body of work in depth through informative texts and a portfolio of images, beginning with Robert Frank, and including such renowned work as Garry Winogrand’s 1964, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, William Eggleston’s Los Alamos, and Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. The Open Road is a visual tour-de-force, presenting the story of photographers for whom the American road is muse.
I have always enjoyed Annie Leibovitz‘ work, and in the past few days enrolled in her online Masterclass.
It was most interesting, and I learnt lots of things about how she creates portraits. Her job is to understand the subject, and create a portrait which brings that understanding alive. Her job is not just to put the subject at ease. I was quite impressed with the pre-shoot research that she does.
I was most taken with her approach to simple but effective lighting, with a single strobe balancing the ambient light. She makes good use of cloudy days, and early light. And Annie is happy to use Photoshop to tidy things up.
There were reference documents to download, and an active online community.
Inspired, I decided to treat myself to her latest Photo Book, Portraits 2005-2016. It’s just excellent.
Here are a few images I especially enjoyed.
Alexandra Fuller, 2016
A great example of ‘environmental portraiture’, looks easy but love that balanced light.
Annie noted in the Masterclass that too many lights can take away what natural light gives you.
Bruce Springsteen, 2016
She also noted that you don’t have a person’s soul … just a flat moment of it in a picture. Annie loves creating a series, a photo story, with each image a different aspect of the subject.
Kim Kardashian, North West, Kanye West 2014
In the Masterclass, Annie also happily admitted that she had photoshopped herself out of the image.
Queen Elizabeth II, 2016
How on earth did she manage to get all those Corgis lined up? Magic I guess, or was it Royal instruction?
By the way, Annie seemed quite proud of the fact that she threw ‘The Decisive Moment’ out of the window a long time ago …
If you haven’t got Annie’s latest book, there is still time for Christmas!
Daido Moriyama, when history is written, will be noted as one of the greatest photographers of his generation.
Japanese photography has always interested me, even before we lived there. Yet it still seems under-appreciated in this part of the world. Witness Bystander totally ignoring the Japanese Greats of Street Photography, marring an otherwise excellent history of the genre.
A new book, Record, should be on every photographer’s gift list for the holiday season. Daido Moriyama is arguably one of the greatest living street photographers. Born in 1938, he continues to astound with his eye and his output, being one of the most prolific photo book producers, and a perceptive traveller.
On his wall in his Tokyo home hangs Nicéphore Niépce‘s “View from the study Window“, reckoned to be the first ever permanent photographic image. He says it is his constant inspiration, seeing the image first thing in the morning, and last thing at night.
Moriyama was a member of Provoke, a movement born in the 1960s seeking some new truths about art and Japan’s role in the world. Provoke paralleled, but was different to, similar ‘protest’ movements in the West. I have written about that before.
Following on from that, between June 1972 and July 1973 Moriyama produced his own magazine publication, Kiroku, which was then referred to as Record. It was a diaristic journal of his work.
Ten years ago he was able to resume publication of Record, and to date he has published thirty four issues.
Moriyama was influenced by the American photographer, William Klein, and especially his book New York from the mid 1950s, with its graphic, almost violent style, full of social critique.
Moriyama on Klein, in the current work, Record:
“My encounter with Klein’s new book New York when I was just twenty two and still loitering at the door of the photography world was a defining moment for me.
The abundant results of extremely violent and freewheeling camera work made me dizzy”.’
Klein on Moriyama, in a catalogue for a 2004 show::
“So many photographers, HCB is one, keep telling us life can be beautiful. But for Daido, life can be, and is, pretty shitty … and photography, as well. Now, after rubbing our noses in that for years and years, he has just put together a show in Paris – the first show of his that I’ve seen – and it’s like in the movies, when the man says to the girl, ‘hey take off your glasses’ … and she does. ‘But, but … you’re beautiful!’… and she is.
And today we see Daido’s tragic, despairing, no way out, end of the world photos for what they always were, fucking beautiful, like he is himself. So … more power to him!”
He also read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, like so many other photographers at that time. Moryiama travelled around Japan, taking pictures from the cab of a truck, hitching across the country.
“As a photographer, I regularly talk about ‘snaps’ as if it was perfectly natural, but as soon as I think about what a ‘snap’ actually is, then I’m usually at a loss for an answer.”
The book collects work from the original thirty published issues of Record, edited into a single sequence, with Moriyama’s text as it appeared in the magazine.
Produced at the magazine’s original size, with an introduction by Mark Holborn, it features more than 200 images.
Japanese photographers were both energised by and perfected the photo book, rather than focusing on any one specific image – Ravens by Masahisa Fukase being perhaps the ultimate example. So I view Moriyama’s work as story telling, and Record is that par excellence.
Moriyama shoots with the simplest of cameras, historically a compact Ricoh.
He continues to publish Record, now in its 34th edition. Several editions were published after the book reviewed here was compiled.
Interestingly, the 34th focuses on the city of Chichibu, a place which has traditionally depended on silkworms and limestone as economic staples, with quiet backstreets and parks.
It is in stark contrast with his early work recording the violence and drama of road traffic accidents in the metropolis, yet maintains the same purity of vision.
Especially in the last 10 years or so, Moriyama has applied his approach to northern Europe, southern France, Florence, London, Barcelona, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles. So, whilst once clearly viewed as a ‘Japanese’ photography, he is a global presence.
In fact, the book ends in Afghanistan.
Moriyama is famous for his gritty, grainy high contrast black and white imagery, often picking up and refining the Are Bure Boke style of Provoke.
Yet he has increasingly shot in colour, and Record is one of the better reviews of this side of his art.
Moriyama is quoted as saying
“When I go out into the city I have no plan. I walk down one street, and when I am drawn to turn the corner into another, I do
I am like a dog: I decide where to go by the smell of things, and when I am tired, I stop”.
One of the last images in the book was taken in Morroco, where Moriyama’s iconic image of the Stray Dog was hanging on the wall.
For anyone interested in the history of photography, or seeking inspiration from one of the living greats, Record should be on your list.
I just got a copy of Pete Souza‘s ‘Obama, an Intimate Portrait‘. A superb book, on so many levels.
First, Souza is an outstanding photographer, capturing documentary moments with precision, and portraits with style. There’s a lot to learn from how Mr Souza tells the story unfolding in front of him.
Second, it is a fascinating historical document. Arranged in chronological order, all the big events, positive and negative, of the Obama presidency are here.
And, third, President Obama is revealing as a caring, thoughtful yet fun loving guy. Very human.
From the blurb:
Pete Souza was with President Obama during more crucial moments than anyone else and he photographed them all – from the highly classified to the disarmingly candid. Obama: An Intimate Portraitre produces more than three hundred of Souza’s most iconic photographs in exquisite detail, some of which have never been published before.
Souza’s photographs, with the behind-the-scenes captions and stories that accompany them, document the most consequential hours of the Presidency alongside unguarded moments with the President’s family, his encounters with children, interactions with world leaders and cultural figures, and more. These images communicate the pace and power of America’s highest office and reveal the spirit of the extraordinary man who became President. The result is a portrait of exceptional intimacy and a stunning record of a landmark era in American history.
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